Saturday, 10 January 2015

Music again

not so long since the last music post, so i guess there won't be much to include in this one. how was 2014 for the world of the aural arts? pretty decent.

I've been aware for a couple of years of Ilyas Ahmed, a Pakistani-born American who makes a blurry, woozy guitar-voice folk music not unlike Grouper. But it was only recently I invested in a couple of his albums. They're really good.

The Grouper album has been hailed like a revelation in many circles. I like it too, and it's grown on me since the first unimpressed listening. It's nice to know that after all this time music can still creep up on me. Strangely I think my favourite is the instrumental drifty closer, Made of Air. To be fair though, I think I prefer her guitar-based earlier stuff; the idea of an album all on piano was pretty nice, but I'm not sure it's amazing. When PJ Harvey did the same thing, she made something really special but this doesn't reach those heights. Maybe it's not a fair comparison - White Chalk really is something else, completely unlike Polly or anyone else's music before or since. Ruins is pretty much Grouper on a piano. Pretty, muffled, hazy, Liz Harris making Grouper songs on a piano.

Dalglish is a man who's been plugging away for many years now; but this year saw one of his best releases for a long time. The new Canadian label Ge-Stell began their existence with a beautifully presented, clear vinyl in a screen-printed PVC sleeve. In this case the package fits the music so perfectly I have no qualms about it. The music is crystalline, organic, beautiful, rich and complex, sophisticated and unlike anything else. This is really an artist coming into his own, and realising the potential for the sound he's been developing intently for the past years. It's futuristic electronic music with vision and emotion. Unwisely, I'm tempted to label it 'post-glitch'. It puts most music to shame, that which is rushed out without any sensitivity, without an  artistic approach or believing that simple passion can replace hard graft. Excellent work from someone highly underrated but who will be remembered as one of the 21st century's great composers.

Dalglish live set from earlier this year (now enabled for download!)

Thom Yorke's second solo album was unexpectedly released, as a deluxe vinyl and download. It's good - not as good as The Eraser, which was surely one of the last decade's five best albums. But it's good. It has those same Yorkey skittery beats, melodies which get more intense the more you listen to them, despite first appearing quite plain. Something Thom does which I really like is sudden injections of the sinister into otherwise passive tracks. This is most obvious on opener A Brain in a Bottle. The titles are pretty weird; "There is no ice (for my drink)"? And his mumbly singing, authentic as is possible with no hint of rock n roll stardom, is disarming as always.

Aphex Twin. Well y'know, what to say about this. Let's just skip to the music, none of the hype needs repeating again. It's good. It's not amazing, and RDJ himself described it as a pop album. No surprises, no extreme degrees of anything but it's highly accomplished and skillful electronic music aimed at the heart as much as the feet. I've got to say, though...the limited edition thing pissed me off. We as fans paid through the nose for a triple vinyl edition, and then Warp have the gumption to dangle a limited package with a bonus track in front of us and price it at £250, available only to those finding the golden ticket in their chocolate bar. After two or more people bid the Caustic Window LP up to $46K they knew they could get away with whatever they wanted with this. It looked like a nice package, kind of like owning a piece of art over and above the music. But it's like rubbing the average fan's nose in their limited pay packet. What's your game Mr James? Oh yeah, making music and occasionally taking time to selling it to us.

So yeah, The Bug's Angels and Devils. I'm actually quite surprised this garnered so much acclaim. It's good and he's developing his sound but as an album I don't feel it really hangs together so well, and there are a couple of tracks which really rub me up the wrong way. I knew I'd prefer the Angels half to the Devils and I wasn't wrong. Some great material on the first but there's not much on the second disc for me. Was surprised to find that Death Grips actually worked out the best of the latter - plus I think the depth and detail on this track is more than the others. Can't stand Function, I really don't like those cheesy horns There's something really distinctive about Kevin's sound - the pressure of it. There's no let up, and even in the mysterious downtempo tracks everything's so compressed there's no room for subtlety. It can get quite wearing after a while (but I'm sure it's amazing live for the same reasons). Love the Grouper colab, likewise Copeland's. What pissed me off most? Well a month or two after the LP dropped he released a double 12 featuring six tracks - two from the LP, and two new tracks plus two instrumentals. I wanted the new tracks, especially the second collaboration with Liz Harris which matches the one on the LP in original brilliance but no way am I going to shell out £15 for two tracks. Seriously, why - after a double 180g album on which everything sounds heavy as fuck - do you need to make a double vinyl single with repeats of two of the same cuts? My answer: it's the deluxe thing. Make things massive, expansive and luxurious and people, especially the vinyl buying music geeks, will throw money at you. That's been writ large this year and most of the time I've fallen for it too. (Note: I didn't with The Bug's Exit; I just bought the two MP3s I wanted) Annoying. OK, music fans have always been commodified and sold whatever crap could be mustered, usually by the most respectable and serious artists and labels (I'm looking at you, Mute. Don't think I have forgotten the whole 2-part CDsingle was your idea first, introduced by Nitzer Ebb of all people). Sure, it's nice to have something beautiful, a triple gatefold vinyl with a foldout poster and a 12x12 glossy booklet with lyrics hand written by the singer's mom and clear vinyl pressed with the band's piss and hair in it (yes, that bit actually happened this year). I'm not saying it isn't. But it's not about the music anymore. It's about commodity and the scarcity-created illusion of need and false-value, tagged on to your favourite band's name and music which doesn't sound much different downloaded as a FLAC from Bandcamp; only much less wasteful and a quarter the price. Why do we do it? Why do cool bands do it to us? This still confuses me. When did underground authenticity fall from distributing your sounds to whoever would hear, via any medium, to extravagant deluxe limited editions of ever more bizarre character? Of course, it hasn't...the real underground still just make their music and put it out there however they can, with or without physical release of packaging. The worst offenders are the middle ground, the successful alternative musicians. Here are some egregious examples from my collection this year.

Young Gods' underrated late career album Second Nature got a deluxe picture disc reissue. In a tote bag. With a signed film still, a postcard, and a dried flower. What does this add (apart from £15 on the asking price?) Well they fit with the visual theme I suppose. This is one of the best things they've done in my opinion. Strange, glistening, passionate, entrancing, still with melodies, rhythmic pace and unusual, processed sounds. There's nothing else like it. Is it worth buying a reissue of it? Well, it's nice, it looks great and it's good that a forgotten and excellent album can still get some extra exposure, but I was disappointed to rediscover how noisy picture discs are. Disappointing in these days of hi fidelity audio. If you want it to listen to, probably better off with a second hand CD.

Circle Takes the Square reissued - twice! - their debut As The Roots Undo. It's welcome, for many. The original has been OOP for years and the new versions are beautiful. The first was a tour edition (in 2 colour variations, in silk screened gatefold; the second was a lovely white black splatter vinyl (or brown) in a full colour triple gatefold. Yes, I caved and bought them both. Idiot. It's a nice to thing to have and of course the music is awesome but it's still just a fucking reissue of music which is available from Bandcamp for pay-what-you-want. Life was so much simpler (and cheaper) when for a few precious years I just bought CDs.

:zoviet*france made an album with Fossil Aerosol Mining Project which drew some attention, mostly for its packaging - a 12x24 sheet of distressed and laser etched steel, folded around two 180g vinyls. It comes with some detritus collected from an American warehouse in the 80s (which turned out to be...two 12"x12" sheets of corrugated card cut from random product boxes which house the records inside the steel and a tiny scrap of carpet stapled inside one of those pieces!) The surprise? It's actually very good to listen to. Warm and ambient, quite lush and with an organic hint of melody - it's an album which stands up quite apart from the concept, yet the concept works to make it better, more tactile and more emotionally appealing.

There was a new album from Blut Aus Nord, last year's black metal discovery. Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry. This is pretty nice, very accomplished and it has a rich, complex feel while being quite organic. The production's pretty tight. To be fair (is it just me?) it doesn't evil like this kind of thing used to. Maybe this is low on the Satanic index, more on the pagan vibe. Maybe it's difficult to still sound evil when you're in the third installment of a multilayered concept album. Maybe there's something about trying to make a whole album sound fully intense so that the lack of dynamic renders everything as background fuzz, which is certainly the case here. The packaging is beautiful, a gatefold with a 12x12 booklet attached inside.

Scott Walker and Sunn 0))) made a massive noise in both literal and metaphorical senses with their collaborative LP Soused. Happily, I drew the line at this and bought the £9 CD instead of the £25 double 180g vinyl gatefold. Again, it's, well it's good. It's interesting and it's original. It's not great. It might even be very good. Even with the enormous density of the sound, there's sparse times and there's subtlety (though not tons of it). I like Scott's vocals on this, they're weird and it's not a style I normally like - this eccentric, all-over the register thing grates on my nerves a little but he does it well here and it fits with the concept in a way I wouldn't have expected. No compromises, and this odd pairing works well.

So who has been making real underground, no frills music? Well, Lea Cummings (aka Kylie Minoise) had a great tape out on Kiks/Girlfriend. Two deep, meditative, beat-based soundworlds not unlike a more minimal-droney Seefeel. Very simple, very good. Kiks' tapes are simple and effective, just a yellow layout with black and white graphic. I like that style. On the same label, WASPS's Accelerone Curves tape comes in a bag with a single piece of card, not even a case. Nice.

HTRK put out a three track CD of blurry refixes from their LP. It's good, not entirely sure what the point of it is (it's not a single, it's self-released, it's all it just something they did in an afternoon and thought fans might like? is it just a money-making gambit?) but it's not expensive, even when posted from Australia.

The Ugandan Methods/Prurient colab paid off well - I wasn't sure I'd like this but I think the oppressive synthwork Dominic brings complements Regis and Ancient Methods' tight, bruised beats. There's always been more to Regis than techno, and this collaboration shows a nice development from what he's been doing recently.

Knifed Out Of Existence seems to be making some waves. I've seen him play a couple of times and I prefer his recordings - live it's just a bludgeoning noise scream fest but recorded there's a lot of grainy subtlety and clicky clanky rhythms. All his releases are pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp if you're not into physical or just want to check em out.

And actually - due I think to Ben's influence - I've come to a deeper appreciation of the brutal end of noise than I had before. I always liked the idea but I didn't really get how to listen to it before.  Aesthetically it really appeals to me at the moment. I'm enjoying a lot the emotional simplicity of it, which adds to the intensity of the music. Also I've got to see the underground/ outsider thing has grown on me a lot more recently in the midst of becoming more aware of the massive commercialisation of some of the music I love. S.T.A.B. Electronics are a project I know little about, one guy I think but making some unusual, taut and captivating sounds. The LP Instrument for Operating on Mutant Women is really good. Something I like about this is that it isn't just white noise - there's a lot of grainy fuzz and vocal samples, as well as some sickness-induced modulated synth sounds that are more pummelling than pure noise.

I'd really like to be able to talk next about Puce Mary's Persona LP which has got more acclaim than most noise releases could expect - but I'm still waiting for my copy to arrive >:(.

I also picked up some tapes by Bagman which are nicely extreme.

After the original CDRs these were rereleased last year by Crucial Blast. I found them through the UK label Reverse Records UK, a relatively new but interesting venture putting out noise and power electronics. Their emphasis is on packaging, which is very sophisticated compared to a lot of noise/pe which goes for an extremely underground style. They retain the gruesome/extreme imagery though, which makes for an interesting combination. I got some other stuff, the best of which is a DVD called Transgressive Collective - a collection of tracks released by RR and some unreleased, with videos created by label boss Keith Mitchell. While I have no time for videos accompanying commercial music, I think the artistic merging of audio and visual has a lot of exciting possibilities, only some of which have so far been explored. Keith does it well here and I've enjoyed the pieces as a whole.

I will say, these vids again remind me of our old video for Blaque Meat for which we cut up some old footage of Hermann Nitsch actions. Which is a nice springboard to say that I uploaded some old DisinVectant tracks to YouTube.

Finally, I rediscovered in the last few days the Von Archives releases I bought a while back. Von are doing some really interesting things in the audio-visual realm, and with a distinctive brand identity which I find very pleasing (every release is packaged in a grainy black and white portrait photograph which adds a degree of austere seriousness to everything). I only have two, and the best of these is Z'Ev's Eyear which contains four experiments where the audio track was played through various media and the resulting movement videoed.

That's all folks. See you again next year!

obligatory Charlie Hebdo post

I had no intention of writing about the Charlie Hebdo massacre until very recently (like, twenty minutes ago). In the beginning, I heard about it and didn't pay it much mind. Terrorism is a fact of life now. It's not the first terrorist attack in France, it's not unexpected, it wasn't even a particularly high loss of life. Days later two thousand (TWO THOUSAND) were slaughtered in Nigeria with a similar motive. In this case the victims were public figures, part of the establishment media in France, and doubtless the air of familiarity that carries has made people feel this more acutely than they otherwise would.

The second reason I didn't intend to write was because I didn't have a simple opinion about it, unlike most who have raised their voices. In fact it would be fair to say I didn't have an opinion at all until I started reading other peoples' and thinking "yeah you have a point there". So I wavered a lot and did some mulling and I think there's some things which I still haven't heard anyone say. I'm going to say those, along with some things that have already been said.

Let's get it clear: there's no absolutes in this. It's deceptively easy to invoke certain principles which our culture believes in an say that trumps all else. Free speech is an important principle and it's one that underpins liberal democracy - meaning Western European culture. But despite what many people say, in life our free speech is always subject to the censure of common sense. If I insult someone, mock them and make a fool of them, then they may turn violent. I have a legal right to do it, and short of slander I can say whatever I want to and about other people. But then I expect certain consequences if I go about it in the wrong way. If the victim responds violently then they have broken the law and may be punished, but me in hospital and them in prison doesn't seem a victory for anyone. For that reason, most of us do not exercise the extremes of free speech which we defend.

Charlie Hebdo did; knowing that it's a very sensitive subject they published cartoons mocking religions and religious beliefs. Islam wasn't the only religion they mocked - they also got their claws into Judaism and Christianity. They did this knowing - let's be honest - that they would face at most some mild criticism from conservative members of the latter two. It's an accepted part of our culture to offer criticism and outright mockery to religion, as much as it is to politics. It's in of the secular west's holy cows. The right to satire. Most of us believe it firmly. I'm certainly one of them. Some humour makes me uncomfortable but I deal with it. It's part of living in a freeish country, with all the benefits that entails. What is the difference between mocking Islam and mocking Christianity? Well, effectively none. And especially for those of us without religious faith, the post-religious in the West, all religious are equally archaic and distanced from our intellectual milieu as to be fitting targets. But secularism is located within a particular religious setting. It is not by accident that the secular world is basically synonymous with Christendom: It is essentially a post-Christian phenomenon - the secular world is the latest incarnation of Christendom. It is the stage that happens in our culture after the specific religious belief of Christianity is filtered out, but still our metaphysics, our cultural presumptions and intellectual baggage remain. We, in the West, the majority of us have grown up as Christian whether we practice or not - it is encoded in our culture. We know the gist of the New Testament, we know the festivals, we know the creation story and the basic soteriology of Christianity. In mocking Christianity we are mocking our own history. Judaism now is assimilated with varying degrees of comfort, to the extent that it too can be considered a part of the religious establishment of the West. Islam is not. It is still a religion - or better, a culture - which is outside the commonly conceived essence of Europe and the West.* It is not at all unusual for Western culture to hold fast the value of critique, of poking things even if it hurts as an objective value applicable to all, but then to reserve the harshest poking for that which is alien to it; the defense "hey, I do this to myself too" doesn't really cut it. Just because I punch myself in the face doesn't mean everyone else should let me do it to them.

*A large part of this is because it has external homelands where Muslims reside and from where they emigrate; Judaism does not have this to such a degree, the tiny state of Israel still being a nation effectively of refugees from other tragedies. Secondly, becasue Jewish life has been part of Europe for centuries.

There is a kind of cultural imperialism in the belief that satire is just fine, it can be pointed wherever we like and everyone should accept the insults. But then what is multiculturalism about? If Muslims live in the West, shouldn't they accept Western values as westerners would when leaving elsewhere? Yes. Simple answer. Just like immigrants to Britain should indeed learn English. It's bad for everyone if people don't attempt to integrate and grin and bear the challenges that brings to some degree. Part of living in these countries is accepting that people don't take religion too seriously, and will often take the piss quite cruelly.

Does freedom of speech mean the right to offend? Does it include hate speech? Does it include the right to incite others to violence? These are the difficult questions which free speech brings. Clearly if we're going to hold to some kind of free-speech principle we need to know exactly how far that freedom goes. There is a point at which ridicule does actually become psychological aggression. And while it is very easy for the mainstream of society to say "it's just words", words are experienced very differently by those who are oppressed by the mainstream, locked out of the warm embrace of social acceptance. It's all words to begin with, but words represent and help to form a social reality of discrimination and prejudice. Would it be different if the terrorists had targeted the offices of the Front National?

Now this makes it seem as if Muslims don't have self-control; autonomy. Everyone is essentially responsible for their own actions. It is never acceptable to say "they made me"; provocation can be an influence, but never a cause. It is worth reciting this: Jews in Europe and the Middle East (i.e., under Christianity and under Islam), in the face of centuries of oppression far worse than Muslims now face, never countenanced violent response. There has also been little evidence of retribution from Christian minorities in the Middle East who have faced severe (read: genocidal) difficulties. The black American civial rights movement had little truck with violence except in self-defence. The Roma have not committed a single act of terrorism. Oppression does not necessitate violence. People choose their own response, with a large helping hand from the peer pressure and way they interpret the culture they align with.

Is there a problem in Islam? Certainly. In Islam right now there is a huge problem. Terrorism - both within Islamic states and non-Islamic - is becoming synonymous with Islam. And it's particularly telling that this response occurs not just towards oppressive Western countries, but also within Islamic and African countries (though by no means all of them). Muslims are hardly an oppressed minority in Nigeria or Pakistan. This wasn't always the case - Islamic civilisation was for a long time much more peaceful and tolerant than Christendom. And let's be very honest - in terms of violence, in terms of numbers killed, the amount of Muslims which the modern West has killed either directly - through invasion, war, drones - or indirectly - through propping up dictatorships, quashing democratic revolutions, carrying out proxy wars - is far far more than the amount of Westerners Muslims have killed. It's a different kind of violence: either a war carried out where civilians are collateral damage, a war that is against a state often also abusive towards its citizens (and often helped into power by Western funds); or the subtle violence of sweatshops, natural resource plundering, all for the protection of Western interests and the quality of life in Europe. My point is, the West also has a problem. And it's a massive one. The urge to hold on to power, power for some, for the "free" people of the West, means subjugating and controlling those of the East who may otherwise pursue their own interests and privelige their own rights and freedoms over ours. Or at the very least compromise our total agency in the world, our right to do and say whatever we feel, with an alternative viewpoint, an Other which faces us as an equal. So, let's not kid ourselves. Western culture and Western governments have no more respect for life than Islamic ones do. Human lives are always collateral in the grand scheme of politics, a machine which chews up souls in a way nature could only imagine.

But there's no easy answers to this. There never are, are there? When we have to find a way of dealing with human relations its so attractive to say that one principle trumps all others. But we're all trying to live in this world together. If I want to do something and feel like I have every right to do something, it's still the case that I am not the final arbiter. I morally ought to think about other peoples' feelings and about how other people might interpret what I say.